KAIRANA, Uttar Pradesh -- While speaking for about 30 minutes in poll-bound Kairana, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath raised almost every issue, which, in recent years, have strained relations between Hindus and Muslims in western Uttar Pradesh.
Three times in his address at the R.K. inter-college in Shamli, Adityanath mentioned the lynching of two Hindu men, Gaurav and Sachin, by a Muslim mob in 2013. At least 60 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the religious violence that had followed. An estimated 60,000 Muslims were displaced in the Muzaffarnagar riots.
"Where were they when Sachin and Gaurav were murdered? Where were they when false cases were being registered (against Hindus)," he said, referring to the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party government in power at the time. "The BJP government will never allow such victimisation (of Hindus), but these people will never improve. They will carry on with appeasement and plunge western UP in riots again."
Earlier this year, the Adityanath government decided to withdraw 131 cases linked to the Muzaffarnagar riots, including 13 cases of murder.
A united opposition
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In the face of a united opposition, a grave sugarcane crisis, and no milestones of its own to speak of, the BJP is relying on religious polarisation to win the crucial Lok Sabha by-poll in Kairana.
On Thursday, Adityanath gave a clarion call for all Hindus, irrespective of caste, to unite against the alliance forged by the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Congress. The anti-BJP front has fielded Tabassum Hasan, a former parliamentarian and the mother of Nahid Hasan, the current MLA in Kairana. Hasan is contesting on a ticket from the RLD.
"The people who have ruled this state for the past 14-15 years, who have divided the state and fragmented our society on the basis of caste, on the basis of territory and on the basis of family, they are responsible for your problems," the chief minister said.
Kairana's nearly 1.6 million voters are made up of upper caste Hindus, Muslims, Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) including Jats, Kashyaps, Sainis and Prajapatis.
While the alliance is targeting the votes of Muslims, Dalits and Jats, an estimated 60% of the electorate, the BJP is aiming for the upper caste Hindus, the OBCs, and non-Jatav Dalits, who don't have an ironclad allegiance to the BSP supremo Mayawati.
This is no ordinary election. After losing the by-polls in Phulpur and Gorakhpur, Adityanath's bastion in eastern UP earlier this year, winning Kairana is a matter of prestige for the party.
More importantly, as BJP leaders told the packed rally ground, the outcome of the May 28 election would set the tone for the 2019 general election.
Losing to a united opposition in Kairana would suggest that the BJP would be vulnerable to a joint attack by regional and national parties in the Lok Sabha polls.
In the recently concluded Karnataka election, for instance, the coming together of the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) prevented the BJP from forming the government, even though it had emerged as the single largest party. The swearing in ceremony of JD(S) president H.D. Kumaraswamy turned into a show of strength of opposition parties from different parts of the country.
Repeating a falsehood
The BJP has fielded Mriganka Singh, daughter of the former parliamentarian from Kairana, Hukum Singh, a veteran party leader, who, in 2016, had floated the theory of a Hindu exodus from his constituency.
Singh had released a list of 346 Hindus, who, he claimed, had left due to intimidation and extortion by local Muslim gangsters. Investigative reports by the media did not find evidence of an exodus. Singh, who passed away in February, later admitted that calling it an exodus was a mistake.
Still, Adityanath and other speakers at the BJP rally continue to speak of it.
"This election is clear. On one side, there are people who forced the exodus of traders in Kandhla and Kairana. On the other side, there is the BJP government that stopped the exodus," he said. "I am happy to tell you that the traders and good families that had run away, who were looking for land in Haryana, Uttarakhand and Rajasthan, they are coming back."
One BJP leader, who spoke at the election rally, asked, "Did the Muslims ask their Hindu brothers to stop?"
Did the Muslims ask their Hindu brothers to stop.
Us versus them
Adityanath, in his Thursday address, did not even once use the word 'Muslim' but reinforced the 'us versus them' narrative during the course of his speech.
When he claimed to have vastly improved the law and order situation in UP over the past one year, Adityanath did so in the context of putting an end to the communal riots in UP, protecting the honor of "sisters and daughters" in the region, and bringing back Hindus to Kairana.
"Recall, 12, 14, 15 months ago, the atmosphere in these parts... the danger to our sisters and daughters... the extortion of traders by big criminals," he said. "Have you felt the difference in one year? We have sent the culprits to the right place. Anyone who will threaten national security, who will try to harm our farmers, traders, daughters and sisters, the police will be a threat to their lives."
"We will protect everyone, but we will appease no one," he said.
We will protect everyone, but we will appease no one.
A key tenet of BJP's attack against Muslims has been accusing them of targeting Hindu women and converting them to Islam.
At the rally on Thursday, BJP leaders referred to the case of a "Dalit beti," who, last year, accused a Muslim man of pretending to be Hindu and gang raping her with a friend.
Furthermore, it is mostly Muslims who are believed to at the receiving end of the police encounters being carried out in the name of improving law and order in UP.
Ganna versus Jinnah
The BJP's falling back on Hindutva as a campaign strategy is partially driven by the prevailing sugarcane crisis that has ticked off the Jat farmers who have been been supporting the BJP since the Muzaffarnagar riots.
BJP's promise of withdrawing "false" cases against Jat men has also worked in its favour.
This time around, however, the sugarcane farmers are furious about the lengthy delay in payments from the mills. The RLD has zeroed in on the sore point by asking farmers whether they care about Jinnah or ganna?
Last month, a portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founding father, hanging in the Aligarh Muslim University since 1938, triggered violent protests.
Hitting at that "Jinnah versus Ganna" slogan that is making the rounds, Adityanath promised that he would take care of both.
To thunderous applause, he said, "People will be coming to you, someone with a caste slogan, some with an identity slogan, some with a farmer slogan, some will say Ganna or Jinnah," he said. "We will work for Ganna, but we will also not allow a portrait of Jinnah."
We won't allow a portrait of Jinnah.
Promise to kanwarias
Adityanath devoted the last few minutes of his speech to the kanwarias, who, while making their annual pilgrimage to Haridwar, pass through communally sensitive areas in western UP.
While accusing the previous SP government of trying to rein in the kanwarias, Adityanath promised to improve arrangements for the pilgrims, which would include helicopters to monitor the security situation and even shower them with flowers.
In a veiled reference to the call for prayer in Islam, the chief minister said, "If some people don't like us celebrating our festivals then do we like celebrating the festivals of other people? If they cannot respect our rituals, then why should we respect them."
"Mike bhi bajega, shankh bhi bajega, ghanta bhi bajega," he said.
Mike bhi bajega, shankh bhi bajega, ghanta bhi bajega.